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Finally Healthy, Creamer Is Ready for a Championship Homecoming May 27, 2021 By Ron Sirak

2010 champion Paula Creamer returns to the U.S. Women's Open less than an hour from the California town where she grew up. (Darren Carroll/USGA)

76th U.S. Women's Open Home

By 2010, Paula Creamer was America’s darling and owned the hearts of golf fans worldwide. At 23, she already had eight LPGA Tour victories, three Solheim Cup appearances and had reached as high as No. 2 in the Rolex World Rankings. When the Pink Panther arrived at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club for the U.S. Women’s Open, she was serenaded by cries of “Paula” and chants of “USA.” But barely three months removed from thumb surgery, she had no idea what to expect.

All Creamer did was go out and win, playing the last six holes of one of the world’s most challenging golf courses 2 under par for her first major championship victory. This year, she lugs different questions into The Olympic Club in San Francisco for the 76th U.S. Women’s Open. Since that Oakmont victory, Creamer has had another operation on her left hand – this on the wrist – and has won only once, falling outside the top 300 in the Rolex Rankings.

From October 2019 until the middle of May this year, Creamer didn’t compete at all, using the time off to get healthy and get happy. Now, thanks to a special exemption from the USGA, she’s competing in her 18th U.S. Women’s Open, where her recent record has reflected her overall frustration. Creamer didn’t play in Houston last year, missed the cut the three previous years and hasn’t had a top-15 finish since 2014, the year of the most recent of her 10 LPGA victories. Her 10-year exemption for winning in 2010 ended last year.

But The Olympic Club is like going home for Creamer. Not only is it just 40 miles from where she grew up in Pleasanton, Calif., but the championship is near and dear to her heart. The only child of a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served his country as a fighter pilot, Paula’s pink ribbons and bows bely the competitive passion that sizzles inside her.

That fire was apparent when she arrived at Oakmont in 2010. She had been highly successful at an early age, but something was missing – a major title. And as much as the lack of a major bothered her, the fact she was constantly reminded of her shortcoming irked Creamer even more.

“I’ve always thought of my career as I’ve been a pretty solid player, but yes, that question has lurked: ‘How come you’ve never won a major?’” Creamer said that celebratory Sunday at Oakmont. “I couldn’t have asked to have won a better major championship than this as my first one.”

During her recent down time, Creamer was able to recharge her emotional batteries as well as reclaim her physical well-being. She first hurt her hand when she hit a tree root in 2006 but played through the pain until undergoing surgery on her left thumb on March 30, 2010. That was followed by surgery on her left wrist in October 2017.

“The last few months of 2019 and almost all of 2020 I didn’t pick up a club,” Creamer said. “This is now the healthiest I’ve been in over 10 years. It doesn’t hurt to hit a ball, which is fantastic. My thumb and wrist have finally been given enough time to heal.”

One week ago, Creamer missed the cut in her first LPGA event in nearly 18 months but the fact she was pain-free has her going into The Olympic Club with an upbeat attitude.

“Yes, for sure, I had concerns about competing again,” Creamer said. “I was not going to put up with the pain on every shot like I did for so very long. It was going to be no pain or no play.  Fortunately, so far, I’m playing without pain.”

That Creamer won at Oakmont so soon after her first surgery was remarkable. Now, as she goes into another U.S. Women’s Open shrouded in uncertainty, Creamer looks back to find inspiration.

“Winning at Oakmont was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Creamer says now. “Months prior I was crying on my dad’s shoulder wondering if I would ever be able to play again. Dr. [Thomas] Hunt reconstructed everything because there was so much torn. When he asked me how I played with it like that, I just said that I knew it was going to hurt every time I hit a ball, so I just blocked it out of my mind.”

Dr. Hunt put Creamer on a ball count through the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open and she didn’t hit any balls off the ground other than in competition. All practice and warm-ups were off a tee.

“It was sore all week, but No. 12 on Sunday it really hurt,” she said about the hole where she made her last bogey of the championship. “I was determined to finish and finish strong so I went back to blocking the pain out and stayed focus. It was a great day and it was at Oakmont.”

Earlier in the week, Creamer got some advice from a local Western Pennsylvania pro that proved to be pivotal. Arnold Palmer, who played his last U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, took an immediate liking to Creamer, perhaps seeing some of his passion for the game in her.

“I didn’t know where I stood [on Sunday] because I never looked at a leader board,” Creamer said. “I felt I was in contention because of the crowd but I took Arnie’s advice, which was: ‘Keep your head down, hit your shot and go hit it again. Don’t be looking around. You can do this if you don’t get caught up in the crowd cheering for you.’”

That’s exactly what Creamer did.

“The last five holes was some of the best golf I’ve played and it was on a big stage which has given me confidence over the years,” Creamer said. “Those holes were a test of my determination and my ability to finish strong. It was great to win at Oakmont especially, and never have to answer that dreaded question again. Plus, I got a huge hug from Mr. Palmer.”

When Creamer won the 2005 Sybase Classic at 18, she became the youngest winner of a multiple-round LPGA event. At the time, the only teenager to win on the PGA Tour was Johnny McDermott in the 1911 U.S. Open at 19.

But Creamer’s career was divided by injury. From 2005 through 2014, she won 10 times, including the U.S. Women’s Open, and missed only 10 cuts. Since then, Paula is winless, has missed 42 cuts and her Rolex Ranking – once No. 2 – is No. 308. Her attitude, however, is now as healthy as her hand.

“I spent time water skiing, surfing, cooking, reading, and wearing a mask,” she said about the lost pandemic season. “Eventually, as things relaxed somewhat, I spent time with my friends and family. It was great, but now it is time to compete again. I can’t wait.”

At 34 (she turns 35 on Aug. 5), Paula Creamer is raring to go. And what better place to return to the big stage than the U.S. Women’s Open, the championship that crowned her career 11 years ago. The Olympic Club, in her old backyard, might serve up a surprise as big as Oakmont.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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